Ask The UMC: What did John Wesley mean by ‘moving on to perfection?’

Be ye therefore perfect as your Father which is in heaven is perfect - Matt. 5:48. File photo by Kay Panovec, United Methodist Communications.
File photo by Kay Panovec, United Methodist Communications.

What did John Wesley mean by ‘moving on to perfection?’

United Methodists talk about three kinds of grace that we experience in our life with God: prevenient grace, justifying grace and sanctifying grace.

Sanctifying grace is the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit that changes us so that our lives are increasingly conformed to the mind of Christ. John Wesley called this lifelong process sanctification or becoming “perfected in love.”

Sanctifying grace draws us toward Christian perfection, which Wesley described as a heart "habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor" and as "having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked."

Retired United Methodist Bishop William H. Willimon explains,

“In the Bible, the word sanctification means to set something apart and make it holy, to commandeer something or someone for special use by God. This Wesleyan emphasis on sanctifying grace is perhaps our most distinctive contribution to the picture of Christian life. 

Wesley took seriously Jesus’s invitation to ‘be ye therefore perfect as your Father which is in heaven is perfect’ (Matt 5:48). By ‘perfection,’ Wesley did not mean moral flawlessness or sinlessness. He meant perfection in the sense of maturity.”

Wesley believed we could become perfect in love in this life. If Jesus invites us to seek perfection, perfect love is possible. He didn’t mean we would be free from mistakes, temptation or failure.

For Wesley, growing as a Christian is all about being filled with love, which happens by the grace of God. We may not be there yet; but by God's grace, as United Methodists say, "we're going on to perfection!"

Have questions? Ask The UMC. And check out other recent Q&As.

This content was produced by Ask The UMC, a ministry of United Methodist Communications.

First published June 25, 2018.

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